Thank you for being one of our most loyal readers. Please consider supporting community journalism by subscribing.
On one of our recent daily walks that have become part of our routine during this time of coronavirus, my wife, Tabitha, and I cut behind Recreation Park Community Center from Lynch Circle. Walking across the rocky, sparsely-vegetated lot, I said to her, “This is sacred ground.”
“This?” my wife, a California native, responded. “Why?”
“This is where it all began,” was my reply.
By the fall of 1974, just as I was about to turn 9 years old, I had acquainted myself with numerous other kids in our Seven Hills neighborhood, but had rarely ventured more than a few blocks from my home. Wilson might have been an even smaller town then but it seemed pretty big to me. So when my mom signed me up for third-grade flag football in 1974, I was excited to finally have a chance to hang out at “the Rec,” which was still the preferred gathering spot for high school kids with its Junior and Senior Teen Clubs.
The Community Center itself seemed both a musty institution and an adventure waiting to happen. When it was time for the Third-Grade Flag Football Dolphins’ first practice, we met in a corner of the area behind the Rec, that “sacred ground.” I remember gathering around our head coach, the late C.T. Harris and father of my teammate Brian Harris, while other teams across three age divisions held their own introductory practices.
Now, I was only in third grade and, truthfully, I didn’t have much of a grasp of sports history, local or national, but I did know that football was a big deal in Wilson. I have no idea if I had yet been made aware of Fike High’s fabulous run of three straight state 4-A championships less than a decade earlier but I did know that football was cool. And it was really cool to actually be on a team. That was serious big-boy stuff for an 8-year-old.
The Dolphins that year went 7-0 and won the championship, mostly because of Brian Harris, who would one day be The Wilson Daily Times Athlete of the Year after starring in three sports at Fike. I mostly blocked, the beginning of my career as an offensive lineman, and yelled, “Go, Brian! Go!”
The games were always fun. You were given a tank top jersey that looked a lot like the ones that we used for basketball a few months later and a flag (usually made out of scraps of blue jeans and corduroys), although I didn’t really need a flag since I never got the ball.
We had a rivalry with the Chiefs, who were also unbeaten and had some guys who were early practitioners of what we all know today as “trash talk.” I remember hearing some of that the day Mr. Harris (or perhaps his assistant coach Jim Fitzgerald, who was a teenager and a bit mischievous) directed us to run our lap past the Chiefs little practice area.
I remember the day Mr. Harris couldn’t be there on time and Jim had us play “Rack” and we loved it, slamming each other into the hillside repeatedly since we couldn’t tackle in games.
I played two more seasons of flag football, finally getting a chance to run the ball in fifth grade. I signed up late, was put on my friend’s winless team (I think it was the Cardinals) because kids were quitting. The coach, Mike Rogers, asked me if I could play running back and I don’t even know if he waited for an answer before telling me that’s where I was going to play. I think I ran for two or three touchdowns that day, one a broken-field, zigzag jaunt in which I remember thinking that I had no idea what I was doing. Sadly, we lost again and while my new teammates celebrated my big day, I ultimately was not the answer the Cardinals desperately needed.
I remember standing on that sideline on the far side of the field, trying to get in the shade on hot days. I remember putting 35 cents in the drink machine in what was then the skating room at the Rec and getting a Fanta Grape, something I could never get at home. I remember hanging around the back of the Rec after practice, goofing off with kids who went to Winstead or Elvie Street. There’s a fair amount of dudes in Wilson with whom I grew up that I first met at the Rec. Sacred ground, indeed.
There are other places around Wilson that, with little effort, I can enjoy vivid memories of special times I spent there when life was a lot less complicated and the world seemed much safer, but the Rec is where my interest in and eventual love for sports first took root. The sight and smells and sounds of that building and grounds will always bring back memories (I can’t walk past the baby pool without thinking of the time I nearly knocked out my front tooth swimming into the side of it) of some really good days.
Hopefully, we’ll all be back to making better memories again soon.